BEIRUT: Airports are prominent non-places. They’ve upscaled to resemble shopping malls more than bus stations, but the added consumer distraction only underlines how these mazes of corridors and escalators exist to get you someplace else. This isn’t news. Fifteen years ago, Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” premised on a hapless traveler forced to live in an airport, made airports’ placelessness a commonplace.
So Karim Ainouz is to be credited with recognizing that discrete layers of history can settle upon airports too, not least Berlin-Tempelhof. The decommissioned air terminal is the subject of the Berlin-based Brazilian director’s prize-winning 2018 documentary “Central Airport THF.”
“THF” opens upon a tour guide leading a clutch of tourists through various locations in the rundown facility. It opened in 1923, she recounts. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor, he aspired to make it “the world’s biggest and most beautiful airport,” which was central to his plans to rearm the country.
Tempelhof was subsequently occupied by Soviet forces, then by their American counterparts, who used it to pierce the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. Shuttered in 2008, the year global financial markets melted down, its grounds became a park for Berliners.
In 2015 THF was retooled as a temporary shelter, where migrants could camp out for up to six weeks while sorting out their residency status. Meanwhile Tempelhofer Feld had become a recreation area where Berliners can bike, picnic and the like.
Much of this information is conveyed before the titles appear on screen. This opening five minutes - commencing within the terminal, moving outside with the tour group, gazing down upon the tarmac connecting hangars and runway and the circular green space of Tempelhofer Feld could be a freestanding miniature essay, scored to the Overture of Wagner’s opera “Rienzi.”
As the camera alights upon disused airport infrastructure and antique aircraft, the soundtrack is halting and tentative. It grows more dramatic as Lycra-clad adults bicycle in and out of the frame, then menacing as helmeted youngsters are shown tooling about on two-wheeled Segways. The orchestra reaches full flight as a drone rises above the site to capture the scale of the location.
The incongruity makes for an amusing start to the doc. Over its 100-minute running time, the camera occasionally leaves Tempelhof’s asylum-seekers and looks in on the Berliners recreating on the far side of the fence, or captures some beer-guzzling youngsters as they jump the fence and dart in to see what the migrants are up to.
“THF” foregrounds Tempelhof’s historic resonance but Ainouz’s interest is the migrants’ stories.
Prospective Europeans sit on benches, waiting for their names to be called. Immigration employees take phone calls. Sometimes unable to communicate with their guests, staff point to where young families need to go to settle in. New arrivals are subject to body searches, their possessions put through a metal detector, before finding a place to sleep.
The film’s protagonist is 18-year-old Ibrahim al-Hussein, who grew up on a farm near Manbij, in the northeast of Aleppo province, near the Turkish border. Ibrahim’s voice-over narration commences the film while the screen is still black, and his recollections and observations punctuate the film as it documents a year in the life of the airport community (June 2016-May 2017), by which point his status has changed.
The refugees’ predicament is one of anxious boredom. Forbidden from seeking work until being granted refugee status and with it the possibility of German citizenship the asylum-seeker’s daily routine is not unlike that of a minimum-security prisoner.
True, German security personnel seem a lot more pleasant than the thuggish screws populating Anglo-American prison movies. Migrants retain contact with the world through their mobile phones. Unlike the current U.S. regime, there’s no discussion of separating migrant children from their families.
While following Ibrahim through his year at Tempelhof, the audience also meets several of his chums and acquaintances, as well as Qutaiba Nafea and Maria al-Ahmad - Arab employees of the state’s resettlement regime who are the minor characters of Ainouz’s film.
Between Ibrahim’s downtime with his pals and Qutaiba and Maria’s work as translators, they provide glimpses of a wide range of experiences and frustrations among Tempelhof’s Arabic-speaking asylum-seekers.
While lighting a nargileh outside the hangar one evening, one of Ibrahim’s chum nods at the airport and smiles. “I don’t care how much money they offer me. I’m not going anyplace else,” he laughs. “Even their shitty food is better than having to cook for myself.”
Noting that they’re sharing a single room with five other migrants, a young couple complains to Maria that the want of doors (forbidden by fire regulations) can be irritating. Later, an old gent complains to Qutaiba about a foot condition that’s been bothering him, then shares his impressions of the German people.
“I have two impressions of the Germans,” he says as the camera looks on. “First, if they owe you the smallest sum of money, they’ll immediately go to the bank and re-pay you. Second, they don’t know how to lie. They never learned how.”
Qutaiba is more forthcoming about his own predicament than Maria. The Iraqi national was studying medicine when he was forced to flee his country with this wife. He had dreams of finishing his studies in Germany. Instead his status remained uncertain as he awaited word on whether his right to work in Germany would be renewed.
“Central Airport THF” is a sober story of the immigrant experience in Berlin. Its sobriety reflects Ainouz’s reserved approach to his subjects.
Thanks to their humane humor and some fine cinematography, it doesn’t want for beauty either.
“Central Airport THF” will screen Friday, May 10, at 8 p.m. at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.